The entrance to Green-Wood Cemetery straddles the area where Brooklyn’s outer-boroughness begins to self-actualize, where Manhattan commuter transplants become fewer and gas stations more plentiful. Across from a furniture clearance store and an auto body shop, a grass-lined driveway slopes upward to the cemetery’s Neo-Gothic gates, which depict scenes of Christ raising Lazarus and the widow’s son from death—a reminder to all of the ephemerality of many seemingly final resting places.
Thomas Wolfe’s short story parodying the unnavigable vastness of the borough famously quipped in its title that “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” The nearly five hundred acres of Green-Wood’s winding paths and hilly plots are similarly fathomless. Glancing at the high-profile names carved into the cemetery’s many funerary monuments, however, it appears that Wolfe might be right insofar as Green-Wood’s dead are Brooklyn, as well the rest of the city. Every other tombstone bears recognizable names of New York’s streets and neighborhoods, magazines, stores, and stadiums: Ebbets, Suydam, Steinway, Peter Cooper, FAO Schwarz, the Harper brothers. The resident dead include ten of the city’s mayors, Leonard Bernstein, Basquiat, Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed, some seventy of those who were killed in 9/11, and on and on and on.
Despite all the corpses, Green-Wood has always been a space for the living. When it was founded in the mid-nineteenth century, it was conceived of as what historians Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows call “a romantic suburb for the deceased,” where picnics and carriage rides would be as common as funerals. The 1860s saw it become the second most popular tourist attraction in the United States after Niagara Falls, and its progenitorship as an urban green space inspired the creation of both Central Park and Prospect Park.
A bramble of squawks drifts down from the monk parakeets nesting in the spire at the top of the gates, the birds’ moss-green bodies and blue-frosted wingtips displaced far from their ancestral South American homes. Local legend surmises that the birds ended up in Brooklyn after escaping a cargo mishap at JFK Airport in the 1960s, though the exact details of the migration are mysterious. The cemetery is now a National Historic Landmark where you can take a trolley tour to learn about the Revolutionary War battle fought on the grounds or attend a performance of chamber music. As social critic Theodor Adorno pointed out, mausoleums and museums often bear a more than phonetic resemblance.
Parrots aside, Green-Wood is something of a magnet for relocation. Last spring, the cemetery agreed to accept the statue of J. Marion Sims, a nineteenth-century doctor sometimes called the “father of gynecology,” whose legacy is now at least as much disgrace as it is distinction. His marquee accomplishment—the development of a surgical technique to fix a vexatious and painful vaginal injury often sustained during childbirth—was the fruit of agonizing experiments on approximately a dozen unanesthetized slave women. One woman, Anarcha, endured thirty different surgeries as Sims’s guinea pig. Shortly after Sims’s death in 1883, a Baltimore doctor wrote to the top medical journal of the time, the Medical Record, suggesting Sims be commemorated with a statue in Manhattan’s Central Park; the journal agreed, and, after a fundraiser, hired German sculptor Ferdinand von Miller II. The city denied a request for placement in Central Park and instead put the statue in Bryant Park, where it mysteriously disappeared during an overhaul of the grounds in the 1930s. When it eventually turned up, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses—not keen to put Sims back up at all—acquiesced to the New York Academy of Medicine, who wanted it across the street from their 103rd Street location. The statue remained there for most of the preceding century, inscribed with the claim, “His brilliant achievement carried the fame of American surgery throughout the entire world.” Representatives from East Harlem began pushing for its removal in 2010, but the city refused their requests, eventually promising the addition of a contextualizing plaque that never materialized.
The values implied by public veneration of figures so enmeshed in white supremacy became acutely apparent in August 2017, when white nationalists rallied around a Confederate statue in Charlottesville in an action which culminated in the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer. Officials around the nation responded with an urgency uncommon to municipal projects. Baltimore city contractors removed four Confederate statues during the dead of night at the behest of Mayor Catherine E. Pugh. The Memphis city council authorized the sale of two of its public parks to a nonprofit in order to circumvent a state law preventing the removal of memorials from public land; the nonprofit promptly took down three Confederate monuments from the parks. New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced a “90-day review of all symbols of hate on city property,” explicitly invoking Charlottesville as an impetus. Shortly after, activists held a protest at the Sims statue, many dressed in hospital gowns soaked bloodred at the pelvis.
Inundated with statements pushing for the statue’s removal, de Blasio’s commission didn’t hear from a single advocate for keeping Sims in Central Park. Of course, Sims isn’t a very good flashpoint: the obscurity of his accomplishments make him a poor candidate for darling of the racist right, while his offenses are too egregious for apologia from the medical establishment. He would not be missed.
Unimpeded, the commission recommended moving the Sims monument out of Central Park. In April, its removal was met by a cheering crowd and plaudits from activists who seemed not to mind that it was trading its home in one hallowed city park for another. Green-Wood’s president, Richard J. Moylan, told the Times that he had offered to put the statue in Green-Wood (where Sims is buried) prior to the commission’s decision to move it. A statement from the mayor’s office made yet another promise for a contextualizing plaque, though it did not address why the statue needed to remain on display at all.
Sims isn’t the first troubled statue that Green-Wood was happy to take off the city’s hands. If you follow the long line of French and proto-American flags flown in the Revolutionary War that appear annually along Battle Avenue from the cemetery’s entrance, you’ll eventually wind your way along the terminal moraine to Brooklyn’s highest natural point. There, the Roman goddess Minerva—a bronze commemoration of the Battle of Brooklyn—waves down to the Statue of Liberty, who stares back across the harbor. Keep going, back down the other side of the hill, and you’ll be greeted by the smirking white butt-cheeks of a marmoreal Adonis figure titled Civic Virtue.
In 1922, Civic Virtue was erected in front of New York’s City Hall, designed by Brooklyn-born sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, built by architect Thomas Hastings, and carved by the Piccirilli Brothers. All were stars of their fields: another statue MacMonnies designed had been placed in City Hall Park decades earlier; Hastings’s firm had designed the flagship New York Public Library; and the Piccirilli Brothers had carved heavyweights such as the New York Stock Exchange pediment, the Washington Square Arch, and the colossal Lincoln of the Lincoln Memorial.
The statue features a strapping young man, the eponymous civic virtue, basking in his successful conquering of a pair of female mermaids, purported representatives of civic corruption and vice. They writhe at his feet in smushed agony, while his sword rests on his shoulder and a vacant smile on his face—an unwitting symbol of how Progressive Era good government ideals can so easily transmute to naïve, towering might at the expense of its most vulnerable constituents. Outcry from the National League of Women Voters and other local women’s groups was ultimately ignored.
In 1941, the statue was ousted from City Hall Park, though not exactly out of gender egalitarianism. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia despised the statue—he called it “Fat Boy”—for mooning him every day as he entered his office. His parks commissioner, Robert Moses, exiled it to the deep farmland of Queens, where a new borough hall was opening. And there it stayed largely uncontested for over seventy years, until 2011, when then-Congressman Anthony Weiner—paragon of feminist virtue—fomented latent public indignation by suggesting it be sold on Craigslist.
The renewed swell of anti-Civic Virtue sentiment resulted in its being taken down from Queens Borough Hall, perhaps a delayed realization of the work of activists three generations prior. As with Sims, Green-Wood’s President Moylan was happy to provide an afterlife for a statue the public wanted dead. “Whether you like it or not, it’s art,” he told the Times, incensed. “You don’t destroy art.”
But politics is, after all, the art of destruction. In 1871, the Paris Commune passed legislation ordering the demolition of the Vendôme Column, a 145-foot-tall monument topped by a statue of Napoleon, due to its association with the imperial conquest of the Napoleonic Wars. The column—which the decree called “a monument of barbarism, a symbol of brute force and false glory, an affirmation of militarism, a negation of international law, a permanent insult cast by the victors on the vanquished”—was yanked down and the statue shattered to pieces as a band played “La Marseillaise.” The United States, too, has toppled its share of political statues: a Manhattan statue of King George III was pulled down during the American Revolution, while an effigy of Saddam was torn down in a spurious celebration of victory, shortly after the invasion of Iraq began in 2003.
James Smillie and Nehemiah Cleaveland’s illustrated guide to Green-Wood in its early years, published in 1847, anticipated the eventual controversies that statues might bring amid changing tastes—both aesthetic and moral. “The whole subject of monumental erections, as a question both of taste and durability, must interest not only those who contemplate making such improvements in Green-Wood,” Cleaveland writes, “but all who would preserve from deformities and desolation, a scene of unrivalled, and, as yet, undisfigured beauty.”
This appeal of certain monuments, and the limits of that appeal, was probably on the mind of the cemetery’s proprietors in their initial scramble to attract visitors to their burgeoning necropolis. In an effort to attract visitors to the cemetery, the body of DeWitt Clinton—a popular New York governor who masterminded the construction of the Erie Canal—was disinterred from the upstate vault where he had been buried on the cheap and shipped to Green-Wood in 1844. His new grave was to be supervised by a statue of Clinton with a billowing toga draped across his suit, in the confused neoclassical fashion favored by sculptors of the time. The bronze monument was finished in 1853, and initially stood in City Hall Park, likely bearing a sign encouraging visitors to its soon-to-be home across the river.
Civic Virtue bears a different sign in its current location, the grassy center of a roundabout intersection of paths on the north side of the cemetery. Staked in the grass below the statue, the placard includes a brief summary of the statue’s history, provided by Michele H. Bogart, a professor of public art at Stony Brook who opposed moving the statue out of Queens. Bogart’s account is short but thorough, and filled with colorful historical details of newsboys swimming in the statue’s fountain during the Great Depression. But her blurb also takes pains to emphasize the “allegorical personification” of the statue, where the “figures represent concepts, not actual people.” Bogart presents the pushback against the statue’s gender politics as one big misunderstanding brought on by women’s voting rights and feminism. “The women interpreted it in a more literal manner than MacMonnies intended,” she writes.
If only she’d consulted MacMonnies, who was frank about his intention: “The most widely accepted form of temptation is that of a woman,” MacMonnies said, as recollected by the Times in 1940, when the decision to move the statue from City Hall Park was finally made. “Can it be that the women are angry [about Civic Virtue] because some man finally found strength to resist temptation?” Moylan and Green-Wood have promised that another such plaque of historical context will accompany the Sims statue when it arrives from storage.
Lacking any visible context—friendly or otherwise—is the grave of Margaret Pine, the last known slave in New York. She remained in slavery for three decades after it was made illegal in the state, and was buried in a Green-Wood plot alongside her wealthy owners. Her grave was long marked by only a tiny headstone, weathered to unreadability and whitened over the course of history. An additional, legible headstone—but no plaque—was added by the cemetery two years ago. Though its general region in the cemetery is noted on the foldout visitor’s map available at the entrance, it’s nearly impossible to find without consulting the internet.
A similarly under-recognized fate long ago befell the Freedom Lots, once known as Green-Wood’s “Colored Lots.” In the nineteenth century, at least 1,350 black people were buried in these cheap, crowded plots, segregated at the southwestern edge of the cemetery. The lots also get a dot on the foldout map, but had no contextualizing plaque or even a physical sign until this past December. Perhaps the only nonwhite monument in Green-Wood is The Greeter, John Coleman’s tiny depiction of Black Moccasin, the chief of the Hidatsas who welcomed Lewis and Clark on the western bank of the Missouri River. The Greeter marks the grave of George Catlin, a white man best known for painting Native Americans. Most of the statuized women throughout the cemetery join Civic Virtue in their “allegorical personification”—Virgin Marys and angelic women are common, but only a scant few commemorate a woman buried below.
As I stood where Sims is buried, not far from an MTA storage lot and the Freedom Lots, the question of how to evaluate the relocation of his statue persisted. His current burial site is inconspicuous—I nearly missed it. Unmarked on the map, its obelisk monument bears the names of several Sims family members, including that of the infamous doctor. Soon, his elegant statue will adorn the grave. Even with a plaque, it’s hard for a publicly displayed statue not to flatter the depicted. Annotate a bronze figure all you want; it’s still triumphant and decontextualized at even a short distance. Trading one park for another across the river, too, smells less of progress than like another frustrating example of history’s lateral moves.
The statue’s move is, if nothing else, a valuable recognition of the referenda on Sims’s legacy by academics and communities in New York. Maybe we’re slightly more comfortable with hagiography in cemeteries, given the age-old norm of not speaking ill of the dead. Sims’s grave is surrounded by acres of dead business tycoons and political leaders, many of whom were surely complicit in—or the driving force behind—terrible things that have been lost to time. Even those famous for their corruption are canonized: Boss Tweed’s large burial plot, home to several stately monuments and aqua-colored gates stamped with the letter T, remains unbesmirched by an explanatory plaque. Even with the laudatory statue, a contextualized Sims grave site may be one of Green-Wood’s most honest.
There’s still no consistent procedure for public art that has been deemed unfit for display, even within New York City. The white artist John Ahearn’s controversial statues of his black and Latino South Bronx neighbors from 1991 stand uncontextualized in Socrates Sculpture Park, on the bank of the East River in Queens, moved from their original home on Jerome Avenue after objections were raised about Ahearn’s race and his choice to depict individuals with complicated pasts, rather than more straightforwardly laudable leader types. Richard Serra’s infamous Tilted Arc, a rusted wall decried as ugly and in the way by federal workers whose walk to work it obstructed, has sat in storage since 1989, consigned to the current fate of many recently uprooted Confederate statues.
There are, of course, other methods of recontextualizing a statue without adding a plaque or spiriting it away. During the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, demonstrators felled a giant statue of Stalin, leaving only its large pair of bronze boots as intact remnants. A replica of the boots now lives in Budapest’s Memento Park, next to a pair of buildings that evoke the crude underside of the Soviet empire. The park—whose main section, “A Sentence About Tyranny” Park, draws its name from a Gyula Illyés poem about Stalinist oppression—is devoted exclusively to the terrors that occurred during Soviet control of Hungary. Forty-two propagandistic monuments erected during Communist rule have been moved there. It’s hard to see anything less than this level of context as sufficient to house monuments to the reevaluated powerful—a whole arena of shame.
Similarly, Delhi’s Coronation Park occupies the site where British King George V was crowned as Emperor of India in 1911, and following independence, the spot became a dumping ground for statues of British dignitaries and monuments to erstwhile imperial rule. In 2011, the government announced it would turn the park into a space of contextualized history, featuring an “interpretation center” focused on the nuances of Indian history as related to the monuments. “What we are trying to [do] is … give you a context in which to see this wonderful back-and-forth that was going on at the time,” one of the park’s designers, Siddhartha Chatterjee, told The Wall Street Journal at the time. India’s flag would fly on a mighty pole one hundred feet above the park, signifying the victory of home rule over colonialism.
In the wake of Charlottesville, the American Historical Association released a statement largely supporting the removal of Confederate monuments (upon consultation of historians, of course), arguing for them to be preserved in historically contextualized exhibits. It highlighted Coronation Park as an opportunity for Americans to “learn from other countries’ approaches to these difficult issues.” However, writing in The Wire, two professors of Indian history countered, “It is clear that none of the members of the various historical associations who signed the American statement have visited the park.” The interpretation center was never built, and all but one of the statue’s plaques are blank, aside from graffiti. Still, the professors describe the park as vibrant with Delhiite life, filled with love, leisure, sports, and selfies. “The statues,” they write, “are regarded with benign indifference.”
The reclamation of figureheads of oppression by the descendants of its victims seems at least as meaningful as a historical display. So, in mentioning Coronation Park, the AHA may actually have been onto something. It’s tempting to imagine the Sims statue ultimately subsumed by a similar fate, though it’s hard to envision it happening in a cemetery that forbids jogging—or in an America where the lingering consequences of slavery are all too often dismissed. Maybe one day.
Since its founding, our country has sought to leech inspiration and legitimacy from classical antiquity—the democracy of Athens and the republic of Rome. As Thomas Paine crowed in 1792, “What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude. The one was the wonder of the ancient world; the other is becoming the admiration and model of the present.” Seeking a shortcut to the established authority of European yore, early Americans borrowed not only its senate and direct assembly, but also its aesthetics of prestige—columns and togas, bronze statues and marble monuments.
As art historian Evie Terrono writes in Anglo-American Perceptions of Hellenism, this neoclassical costuming became even more popular in the late nineteenth century in an attempt to homogenize an American culture that was diversifying in the wake of the Civil War and an influx of immigration. It is perhaps no coincidence that the ancient societies idealized by the American establishment were dependent on the labor of thousands of slaves, and rooted in a politics that excluded women and foreigners. If we seek to atone for the sins shared with the past, we should probably stop wearing its clothes.
But until then, there’s Green-Wood’s hilltop Minerva, who fondly remembers the Battle of Brooklyn. It was the first fought by the newly declared United States, and an unmitigated disaster. The British troops that marched up through Flatbush outnumbered the band of U.S. soldiers five to one, and 1,300 underprepared Americans were captured that day. Four hundred stalwart Marylanders were left to perish in Brooklyn, while General Washington and his troops slunk back in the fog and ultimately across the East River to his palatial headquarters in upper Manhattan. Had the American Revolution been unsuccessful, the routing that took place in Brooklyn would have been a decisive portent. Instead, Washington’s successful retreat is today a footnote in history, with local monuments of comparable visibility.
As with Washington’s, the long-term significance of Sims’s escape across the East River is mostly dependent on the skirmishes that will occur outside the cemetery—in the cultural conversation, in the political arena, in history’s burial of long-held narratives, and in the resurrection of others. These negotiations are constant throughout world history, and our communities of arbiters should seek to prevent our understanding of the past’s consequences from fading alongside the lives of its actors.
The raising of Lazarus—sculpted into Green-Wood’s entrance and first told in the Gospel of John—contains what might be the most succinctly powerful verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Realizing the pain of Lazarus’s family and perhaps his complicity in Lazarus’s fatal illness, Jesus throws himself into solidaric grief. It is only through a public reckoning with the tragedy at hand that Lazarus is redeemed and restored.
Well, let our parks and our monuments weep. Only then may our sickness not be unto death.